NY Dispatches: the arrest of Sergey Furgal

On Thursday, 9 July the agents of the Investigative Committee, working together with the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested the governor of the far eastern Khabarovsk Krai, Sergey Furgal, a former Duma deputy and member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) of the “systemic” or tolerated opposition. In response, massive crowds turned out on Saturday to protest his arrest. Even though the charges seem at least plausible, Furgal’s arrest bears every distinctive mark of a political hit job. It is almost certainly meant to send a warning to other regional leaders and opposition parties, but it may have implications going even beyond this.

The case, in which Furgal is accused of arranging contract killings of his business rivals, dates back to the mid-2000s when he was an entrepreneur, according to the documents associated with the arrest. Six others, including two LDPR deputies in the local assembly, were also arrested.

While he should be assumed innocent until he is found guilty, it must be stated that the charges against Furgal at least seem plausible and not only because he was a businessman in a rough region. Criminals and LDPR have gone together like peanut butter and jelly over the past decades. Consider Andrey Lugovoy, the man accused of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko who has been LDPR’s Duma deputy. Or Sergey “Mikhas” Mikhailov, a known career criminal or “vor” who was on the party’s list in 1999 (although he was disqualified before the election). Or Leonid Slutsky, a deputy and former member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a key figure in forging Russia’s links with the French far-right.

Even so, the timing of the operation seems to confirm, first and foremost, that this is a political hit job. The FSB, which seems to have been given free rein to crack down on any potential form of dissent following the constitutional plebiscite, could have had Furgal arrested at any point in the past fifteen years.

There is a reason why this had to happen now and not earlier. In September 2018, shortly after country-wide protests against an unpopular pension reform, four surprise electoral upsets rocked the Kremlin and the United Russia party in gubernatorial elections. In three out of the four affected regions – Khakassia, Khabarovsk and the Vladimir Region – candidates of “systemic” opposition parties who unseated incumbent governors from United Russia were allowed to take office. In the fourth region, the Primorsky Krai where Putin personally endorsed the defeated governor, the election was annulled and later the Kremlin managed to usher in a nominally independent candidate. Shortly after the 2018 electoral upsets, journalists and political commentators speculated that the Kremlin could either try to co-opt, undermine or remove the newly elected governors. Furgal was famously offered “a way out” of an electoral victory that seemed inevitable when between the two rounds of the election the incumbent governor, Vyacheslav Shport offered to make him lieutenant governor. Furgal first accepted the offer but later specified that he would only take the job were he to lose the run-off. Instead, he won in a landslide.

As a governor, Furgal did not show more readiness to cooperate with the Kremlin, either. Not only did he clash with municipal officials nominated by United Russia as well as the Presidential Administration (and its representative, the presidential plenipotentiary), but broke a taboo by meeting the leader of Alexey Navalny’s Khabarovsk office. Furgal actively tried to keep the protest sentiment that catapulted him into power alive in the region. A vindictive Moscow that removed the capital of the Far Eastern Federal District to Vladivostok and opened an investigation into Viktor Ishaev, a former governor who supported Furgal, almost seemed too eager to help the governor appear as the champion of the region vis-à-vis remote and oppressive Muscovites. In 2019 LDPR all but wiped out the local United Russia chapter in municipal and regional legislative elections. In this year’s constitutional plebiscite, the Khabarovsk Krai produced some of the least impressive turnout and support figures (although these were similar in several other Far Eastern regions).

Ultimately, his popularity was not strong enough to save Furgal from being arrested. Residents of the region turned out in massive protests on Saturday to side with the governor but it is questionable if they will be able to maintain pressure during a pandemic, which is still battering the region. While Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the LDPR vowed to walk out of the State Duma to protest the charges, it is unclear what this is supposed to achieve. In any case, Zhirinovsky’s move is unlikely to make any impact if the Communist Party, the other “systemic opposition” party that has skin in the game, joins it. And right now it looks like Zhirinovsky might not even be able to count on his own party. The other LDPR governor who was swept to office by the 2018 wave, Vladimir Sipyagin, was significantly more restrained in his defence of Furgal than Zhirinovsky. Sipyagin probably knows which side of his bread is buttered and suspects, probably rightly so, that he may also be removed. After all, he almost openly criticized the Kremlin during the pandemic. And as an official who was allowed to take high office in Russia, it seems likely that he too has something to hide.

While regions or regional leaders “rising” against Moscow is not an immediate threat, in recent years the growing reach of Navalny’s organization in the regions, increasingly frequent protests as well as the growing assertiveness of regional political leaders have introduced unwanted risks for the Kremlin. There are increased fears within the security establishment of separatism, even in its mildest forms. Furgal’s arrest sends a message: if we make you an offer, you should take it even if; you are popular, we have the key to your closet, we can find the skeletons and we will take you down.

The arrest has two more implications that have been less discussed but could be important. First, it again draws attention to the changing contract between the Kremlin and regional leaders. Andrey Pertsev, a political analyst pointed out that Furgal had reason to suspect that even if he had taken the suggested way out and resigned, he would still have been arrested, because this is exactly what had happened to Leonid Markelov, the former head of the Republic of Mari El. Mikhail Ignatiev, the now-deceased former head of Chuvashia who sued Putin for his dismissal earlier this year and asked the court to clarify what constituted “loss of trust”, also suggested that the deal governors are getting from the Kremlin was now unclear and therefore it is far from certain whether it is worth playing along. Furgal’s arrest warns governors that they cannot reconsider the terms of the deal, even as the Kremlin does.

Second, Furgal’s arrest, which prompted not only massive interest but a solidarity campaign, served as a distraction from the chilling crackdown on journalists and activists that began immediately following the plebiscite and by which, as the journalist Andrey Soldatov suggested, the FSB is redrawing the rules of the game for those holding the government accountable. Authoritarian governments like to pretend that journalists and NGOs are covert political actors, the enemies of the government and by extension, the state. As Khabarovsk residents use the same slogans to protest Furgal’s arrest as Muscovites and journalists used last year to express solidarity with Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist, it will be easier for the Kremlin to pretend that investigative journalists and a corrupt politician with a shady past are cut out of the same cloth. Even if the arrests follow from the same logic, they are not. But in an environment that has little room for nuance, if any, it seems unlikely that many will appreciate this difference.  

Disclaimer: this blog was edited shortly after its publication to mention the developing pro-Furgal protests in Khabarovsk, due to their importance to the story.

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